The Promise and Peril of Iraq

Robert Alt

April 1, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq — I received an email a few days ago from an old friend who runs a think tank. He was interested in taking a trip to Iraq, and was seeking a little intelligence on what he needed to bring and to know before arriving. I jotted a response back, suggesting a few necessities for travel in Iraq, such as level four body armor with ceramic plates—which is the standard for protection against AK-47 rounds. I also recommended that he stay at a hotel that has military protection, explaining that while these buildings are still susceptible to mortar or missile attack (as I learned firsthand), they are not as likely to be hit by a larger magnitude device such as a car bomb. After going through what must have seemed like a litany of warnings and safeguards, I offered that Iraq was definitely worth visiting. I imagine that the contrast between my safety recommendations and my words of encouragement to visit was striking, but perhaps no more so than the experience of someone who saw the carnage in Fallujah on the news yesterday before reading about the optimism and support of the Iraqi law students in my last article. This is the contradiction that is transitional Iraq—a place of both promise and peril.

For those who missed the news account and were therefore spared the horrific images, four civilian contractors were ambushed in Fallujah, a city around 30 miles to the northwest of Baghdad, as they escorted a food delivery. After insurgents hit the vehicles with grenades, locals removed the victims’ charred bodies from the vehicle, paraded them through the street, and beat their remains with sticks. One victim’s body was then hung from a bridge, while locals were pictured jumping on the burning cars and dancing in the street. The scene has already been likened to the startling images from Somalia which inspired “Black Hawk Down.”

Needless to say, the mood in Baghdad was tense last night. In addition to the news from Fallujah, a large demonstration protesting the Coalition’s decision to close an Iraqi newspaper closed several streets and one bridge near the U.S. occupied Green Zone. Throngs of people chanted in the streets, and threw rocks at passing soldiers. Reconnaissance helicopters made countless loops in the area, assuring that the situation did not get out of hand. At least one explosion was heard in the distance, although to my knowledge it was not related to the demonstration.

I actually got caught up in the demonstration making my way to the press center in the Green Zone. While there were some who seemed adamant in their protest, many seemed to be more interested in waiving Shia icons and colors—so much so that I thought for a time that this was Shia celebration. And a substantial number of the younger Iraqis seemed to be there because this was the thing to do in Baghdad on a balmy Wednesday night. Call it cruising, Iraqi style. Despite a few tense moments, the demonstration appears to have dispersed without major incident.

But Baghdad’s relative peace last evening stands in stark contrast to the increasing violence in Fallujah, a town which is referred to affectionately by those in the military as the Wild West. While I have not spent any time in Fallujah, I drove through it on my way to Baghdad last month. My driver, who spoke very little English, pointed to the city while it was still in the distance and said repeatedly, “Ali Baba,” which is local slang for bad guys or friends of Saddam. As we got closer to the city, the highway revealed the handiwork of Ali Baba, as burned out cars and charred asphalt indicated where improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, had done their damage.

Fallujah, like Tikrit, was a stronghold of Saddam loyalists, and continues to be hospitable to those who seek to do violence to the Coalition and to the new Iraqi government. Violence has likely increased in this region in recent days because of a troop rotation which saw the 82nd Airborne replaced by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The terrorists have shown a cunning knowledge of when new troops arrive, and they tend to increase their attacks accordingly.

The difficulty in solving the problem in Fallujah is profound. Those who commit violent acts must be dealt with in the most serious manner. I fear that the western media is already showing squeamishness about the use of force by Marines, but they would do well to remember that Iraqis on whole subscribe to a philosophy which respects strength, and not weakness. Failing to respond to the violence therefore would invite still more violence, not less.

More than simply addressing those who commit the acts, however, the Coalition must address those in Tikrit and Fallujah who are sympathetic to the violence. Here, the problem is that the anti-western sentiment has been habituated through years of propaganda and kickbacks to loyalists, both of which have produced profoundly negative effects on the character of these people. To quote a Baghdad store owner, the problem is that “the Iraqi person must be rebuilt,” and this will take time. It will take time, but as we have seen in other cities in Iraq, it is possible.

Which brings me back to the email to my friend: Because of turbulent areas such as Fallujah and the random acts of terrorism throughout the country, Iraq is still a very dangerous place. But these dangers, though serious, are not statistically representative of the views of the Iraqi people. A major goal of the terrorists and the small enclaves of Saddam supporters is to use dramatic attacks such as the one in Fallujah to garner media attention, and thereby to skew public perception concerning Iraqi sentiment and the progress of the transition. But the view on the street—the view of the average Iraqi who is enjoying his first taste of freedom—is one of hope and promise. This is the paradox of transitional Iraq: promise punctuated by peril. And this is worth remembering the next time you see a tragic picture from Iraq. Do not mistake the few people rejoicing at death and destruction for the average Iraqi, who is attempting to rebuild himself and his country for a better life.

Robert Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He is currently reporting from Iraq. He posts daily reports on the Ashbrook Center’s web log, No Left Turns.